The Wilderness

ARTS, Music, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_wildernessPresented by Blackbird Ensemble
Directed by Claire Cowan
Q Theatre, Auckland | July 10-13

I see a lot of good shows, a lot of great shows, and a lot of middling shows. Sometimes I enjoy them despite not being the audience, and sometimes I am the audience but end up not enjoying them. It’s very rare that I go to a show and feel like the creators snuck into my room at night and sucked out what I wanted to see most in a show, but didn’t know I wanted to see it.

The Wilderness is that kind of a show. I’m unfamiliar with the work of the Blackbird Ensemble, but have heard rave reviews of their shows which pop up across the city and disappear with much whispered fanfare, this show appeared to be much the same.

This show could not be more aimed at me. The Wilderness takes Max Richter’s recomposed version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and transports it into a visual setting, so you’re watching these performers, in full costume and makeup, as much as you’re listening to the music they’re performing. Richter is one of my favourite composers, although I’m most familiar with his works for film, and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is an incredibly accessible piece of classical music that anybody who so much as listened to Vanessa-Mae once or watched a National Bank ad would be familiar with. Richter sits comfortably between classical and more modern forms of composition, and the Blackbird Ensemble builds on these compositions with stunning visuals.

It’s one of those shows you want to describe every detail of, but don’t know where to begin. There’s Celery Productions’ brilliant set design, which transports a fairy-type forest with snapping twigs, ample foliage, an oasis in the middle, and even the smell of being in a forest; there’s Valentina Serebrennikova’s Hunger Games by way of Ishioka costumes; or there’s Brad Gledhill’s lighting design which can take us from season to season to a rock show without missing a beat in between. When you’re dealing with music as revered as The Four Seasons and performers as talented as soloists Amalia Hall and Jessie Cassin, the visuals have to match up, and they more than do.

Much to my surprise, the Blackbird Ensemble round it off with three of my favourite songs: Bjork’s masterpiece trip-hop-ballad ‘Hyperballad’, Joanna Newsom’s fairy epic ‘Cosmia’, and Bat for Lashes’ haunting ‘Wilderness’. It’s a credit to both Claire Cowan’s artistic vision and the performers that these songs come off as well as The Four Seasons, and Jessie Cassin’s heartbreakingly fragile performance of Cosmia is one of the best things I’ve seen on a stage all year.

One of the joys of this show, and the joy of seeing it in a space as intimate as the Q Loft, is being able to watch the performers take joy in performing. As somebody who doesn’t review music generally and is entirely untrained in musical theory, it’s beautiful to capture the nuances on these performers’ faces as they take cues from each other, or even as they briefly smile after an audience’s applause before going into the next piece. There’s something wonderfully bizarre about seeing musicians who might not be used to getting dressed and made up in this manner doing so, and it just adds to the fantastic nature of the show.

The Wilderness is a show I wish I could’ve seen as a child so I could have it locked in my brain forever. It’s one of those shows that expands the imagination and warms the heart. I don’t think I’ve seen a show that has made me so outright happy in a long, long time, and or one that makes me feel bad for listening to music that isn’t as good as this. It’s a show that deserves a long life, and I hope it hangs around for more audiences to experience and have their days, and their lives, made that much better.